I’m deep in research for an article, searching through the National Library of Wales’s digital archives of the South Wales Echo newspaper for coverage of a specific coal mine explosion. Yes, there is a search function, but it turns out that computers don’t always correctly process the words in scanned documents (no surprise there!), so I am going issue by issue, within certain parameters. The monotony of clicking into an issue and then clicking to each page to scan it, fumbling with the zoom feature so I can actually read the headlines, is broken when I stumble across “Fun For Christmas. Conundrums” in the December 25, 1880 issue. This is clearly not relevant to my article, but I’m curious about these conundrums.

My favorite: “What vegetable is dangerous on board an ironclad? – A leek; because a little leak will sink a great ship.” Note: an ironclad is a nineteenth-century warship. Why is this my favorite, you might ask? Because we have that same joke today! Remember the official trailer for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (I haven’t seen the movie so I can’t reference that)? “Aaah! There’s a leak in the boat!!!” Switch to a shot of an anthropomorphic leek sitting in the boat. It amazes me how some things can change so much in 140 years, but apparently a love of food puns is not one of them.

I make it to the February 5, 1881 issue before my eye is drawn once again to an article not related to coal mine explosions: “Grand Display of the Borealis”. It’s a short article, so here it is in full: “The plains of Llanbyther were on Monday evening lighted up with brilliant coruscations. The arch of a long bank of cirrus formed a back-ground, from which fan-like beams expanded to the zenith; the chameleon colours of the Aurora being, by a double reflection from the fleecy clouds, bent to the earth with a brilliancy that dimmed the light of the stars and rendered print easily readable.”

I don’t know about you, but that shift from the soaring language of “brilliant coruscations” (I had to look up that word) and “fan-like beams” expanding to the “zenith” to the quotidian “rendered print easily readable” makes me laugh every time. Both the conundrums and the article have me scrambling haphazardly out of my research rabbit hole because I have to share them immediately. I interrupt whatever my husband is doing to read them to him; I text screenshots to my family and friends.

These are the random research gems that may not ever make it into whatever I’m working on, but who cares? They make me smile and laugh; they bring me joy and demand I share that joy; and they put the human back in the humanities when it has lost its humanity in the looming idea(l) of the objective researcher.

– Emily Beckwith (Ph.D. Student in British Literature, University of Georgia)